A large brain coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands shows the usual effects of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Image Source: Marilyn Brandt, University of the Virgin Islands
The Caribbean is one of the world’s premier biodiversity hotspots. Coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove swamps, and tropical rainforests play a crucial role in the region’s cultural, economic, and ecological fabric. Not only do these ecosystems protect Caribbean coastlines from tropical storms and erosion, as well as provide an important source of food and jobs for local communities, but they also help mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, in the Caribbean, like in much of the world, these precious ecosystems are under immediate threat. A cascade of interconnected crises, from the excessive use of land and sea to climate change, is accelerating biodiversity loss at an alarming rate. Without drastic international, regional, and national efforts, entire ecosystems will collapse, posing a significant risk to the Caribbean region’s economy, security, and bio-natural heritage.
As a result of its insularity, the Caribbean islands possess unique ecosystems with high levels of endemic species. From the Greater and the Lesser Antilles to the Lucayan Archipelago and the Cayman Islands, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, as well as seagrass beds are the habitat of over 12,000 marine species, including mollusks, crustaceans, and fish. In addition, terrestrial habitats contain 12,847 native and introduced flora species. Belize, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana are also gifted with highly biodiverse landscapes. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS), found off the coasts of Belize, is the largest unbroken barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the world’s second-largest, following the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. It is estimated that 500 fish species, 60 coral species, 350 mollusk and marine mammals, algae, and seagrasses live in the MBRS. Guyana and Suriname, located in what is known as the Guiana Shield—a vast ecoregion that lies in the northern part of the Amazon—remain one of the best-preserved reservoirs of biodiversity, carbon, and freshwater in the world.
Biodiversity is fundamental to the region’s economy as well as to mitigate climate change. A 2016 World Bank study estimated that Caribbean coastal and marine ecosystems are valued at USD 54.55 billion. According to the Resilient Islands Initiative, mangroves and coral reefs are estimated to provide the Caribbean with USD 15 billion annually in fisheries, tourism, and carbon sequestration. Similar studies have shown that coral reef-related tourism alone provides the Caribbean with an estimated annual revenue of USD 7.9 billion—a figure equivalent to more than 10 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product. In terms of carbon sequestration, the region plays an major role. The Guiana Shield sequesters approximately 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—equivalent to the carbon emissions of nearly 89 million households in one year.
Moreover, the Caribbean’s endemic species are also vital for novel drug treatment developments, including drugs for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, immunological and central nervous system disorders, diabetes, as well as bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. For instance, Trabectedin—an alkylating agent used as a chemotherapy drug to treat advanced soft tissue sarcoma and relapsed ovarian cancer—was first isolated from a colonial tunicate found in Caribbean mangroves and seagrass blades called Esteinascidia turbinate.
Flora and fauna are also deeply rooted in the region’s social fabric. For Caribbean Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, nature represents a means of livelihood and an essential element of their belief systems. In Dominica, the Kalinago people—the last Indigenous Peoples in the Eastern Caribbean—not only rely heavily on forests for subsistence agriculture, yet maintain a belief system that is also deeply connected to nature. The Kalinago people’s traditional ecological knowledge plays a fundamental role in the Dominican government’s current efforts to achieve its goal of becoming the world’s first country to be resilient to the multiple effects of climate change. In other parts of the Caribbean, local species have become modern symbols of national identity and an essential part of bio-cultural heritage. In Barbados, the flying fish—a tropical and temperate marine species often found in coral reefs in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans—is not only the national dish, but it is also considered a symbol of identity and pride.
Nonetheless, the rapid increase of economic activities, such as fishing, tourism, agriculture, and mining, is contributing to the region’s environmental degradation, inflicting long-term costs. In addition, as human-induced climate change exacerbates, its multiple impacts—such as rising sea temperatures, changing rain patterns, ocean acidification, and sea level rise—pose an everlasting threat. Data from across the region points to the same situation: biodiversity is declining at a fast rate. According to the latest report from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network on the status and trends of Caribbean coral reefs, “Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades.” Related studies show that Caribbean mangrove forests have declined 24 percent in the past quarter-century, tropical rainforests are degrading, and seagrass bed ecosystems are collapsing.
A 2018 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) report on the state of biodiversity in the region highlighted that in connection to the rapid growth of populations and economic activities, the Caribbean’s main threats to its biodiversity include “increasing urbanization, conversion of lands for tourism and commercial development, and the expansion of agriculture. The report also exposes the threats from “invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation of living resources.” In addition, with projections showing an increase in the global temperature by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100—well above the 2015 Paris Agreement goal to hold the rise of temperatures below 1.5 degrees—scientists expect that climate change will likely become the main driver of biodiversity loss, posing long-lasting and irreversible changes to the ecosystem.
Indeed, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, climate change is already heavily impacting the Caribbean’s biodiversity. Rising sea surface temperatures and sea levels, changing rain patterns, acidifying oceans, and intensifying extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts are among the main climate change parameters affecting biodiversity in the region. Coral bleaching—the process in which corals, driven by changes in conditions such as temperature or nutrients expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, turning them completely white and leaving them subject to mortality—is among the most notable and well-documented effects of climate change on marine ecosystems and poses a significant threat to Caribbean reefs.
With the alarming increase in the temperature of the Caribbean Sea at a rate of 0.24 degrees Celsius per decade, increasingly frequent marine heat waves, and rising sea levels as a result of climate change in combination with local factors associated with changes in land and sea use, projections show a dire future for strategic Caribbean marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss requires practical solutions that will invariably touch upon politically and economically sensitive issues. This may include questioning the region’s developmental strategy and exploitation of natural resources, acknowledging the responsibility of high-emitting countries for warming temperatures, and tackling regional structural problems. Protecting the environment requires a comprehensive strategy that addresses local drivers of biodiversity loss, such as pollution and exploitation caused by the expansion of economic activities in the region, as well as the global threat of climate change.
For more information and recommendations, as well as an analysis of the impacts of climate change on the Caribbean’s biodiversity, read Global Americans’ full report, “Safeguarding Caribbean Biodiversity.”
Alejandro Trenchi is a Research Assistant at Global Americans for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.